By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
The first play of ACU’s first NCAA playoff home game wasn’t exactly what the Wildcats would of preferred.
Junior quarterback Billy Malone threw an interception to Mesa State linebacker Mark Gruner, and after a 17-yard run back, the Wildcats found themselves in an early 6-0 hole.
But after the first touchdown, Mesa couldn’t score, and ACU couldn’t stop scoring.
“They’re something else,” Mesa St. head coach Joe Ramunno said of the Wildcats “They’re a fast defense and we had our chances, but we just didn’t capitalize and they did.”
In the first NCAA playoff home game in the history of the school, the No. 15 Wildcats scored eight touchdowns and shut down Mesa St. in a 56-12 win over the No. 17 Mavericks at Shotwell stadium Saturday.
The win was the first NCAA playoff victory in ACU history and secured a spot in the next round of the D-II playoffs, where the Wildcats will face No. 2 Chadron State in Chadron, Neb. on Nov. 24.
The last time ACU won a playoff game was in 1977 and head coach Chris Thomsen said the win’s impact is momentous.
“It’s huge for our fans, recruiting and our program,” Thomsen said. “It’s been a long time since this has happened to our school and I’m glad to help bring it back to the school.”
In a game that was pretty much over at halftime, ACU led 42-6 at the halfway point, the Wildcats showed why they are one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
ACU scored fast and frequently, with five touchdowns in three plays or less and ACU racked up a total of 511 offensive yards.
Leading the way for the Wildcats were Malone, junior running back Bernard Scott and junior wide receiver Johnny Knox. Scott and Knox each scored three touchdowns and Malone was 18-22 for four touchdowns and 271 yards.
“If you look at the film, they were a tough defense,” Knox said. “We just came out and executed.”
Knox’s first touchdown got ACU’s offensive ball rolling when Malone threw a high spiral that hit a wide-open Knox in stride for a 75-yard score. Knox, who finished the day with five catches for 118 yards, said he was just hoping to not drop the ball.
“It was a big play and a big call,” Knox said.
Scott increased his ACU single-season rushing record to 1, 862 after a rushing for 125 yards. Scott’s three touchdowns, the biggest of which was a 65-yard breakaway, put his season total at 33, just four away from tying former Wildcats and NFL back Wilbert Montgomery’s 1973 single-season record of 37 touchdowns. Scott has scored at least three touchdowns in 12 games this season and was not tackled for one loss in the game.
While ACU’s offense scored, it’s defense repeatedly shut down the Mavericks.
ACU’s defensive line and linebackers put constant pressure on Mesa St. quarterback Philip Vigil, sacking him a season-high seven times.
The Wildcats held the Mavericks to only 229 total offensive yards, and junior E.J. Whitley got two interceptions.
ACU’s next opponent is the highest-ranked foe the Wildcats have faced this season. Chadron State is ranked No. 2 in the nation and is the top team in ACU’s region, and Thomsen knows the pressure is on the Wildcats.
“We’ll just go up there and play as hard as we can,” Thomsen said.